#OPINION | Mandatory military service — an exercise in futility

by Corinne Llantero

Content warning: This article contains mentions of abuse, hazing, violence, and death.

Another government official, another proposal to bring back mandatory military service.

During a virtual caravan last January 19, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio was asked how she intends to spring young people into action and become part of nation-building. Her response: “Make military service compulsory for all Filipinos once they turn 18 years old.”

The proposal was met with mixed response among the public — many expressed outrage, while others supported its imposition. Duterte-Carpio, however, is not the first government official to propose the resurrection of mandatory military training; her own father, President Rodrigo Duterte, similarly proposed this revival during his candidacy. In fact, the House of Representatives already approved House Bill 8961 back in 2019 which, if passed, would make Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) mandatory for senior high school students.

These politicians, so fixated on their excuses of nationalism, have always forgotten that mandatory military service only brings more problems than it solves. Resurrecting it is unnecessary and impractical, given the current state of the country. And yet, they continue to deliberately ignore a long history stained with blood — history that should not be repeated, especially when there are far better alternatives.

‘Not like ROTC’

ROTC is currently an optional program under the National Service Training Program (NSTP). According to the Republic Act (RA) 9163, its function is to provide students with military education and training for national defense preparedness. While ROTC in and of itself is not required, NSTP is a prerequisite for all college and university students in order to graduate. It is taken for two semesters (a total of one year) on weekends.

What sets Duterte-Carpio apart from her predecessors who similarly attempted to revive mandatory military service is that she claims her proposed program would be unlike if ROTC was required, where training lasts only for weekends or a month. Instead, she states, “Once you reach 18 years old, you will be given a subsidy . . . [and] asked to serve our country under [the] Armed Forces of the Philippines.”

South Korea and Israel

In her statement, Duterte-Carpio mentioned that both South Korea and Israel implement mandatory conscription. However, it would be completely inappropriate and even unjustifiable to compare the Philippines to either country. Our situations are incredibly different as they are in actual threat of an attack from neighboring countries. Technically speaking, South Korea is still at war with North Korea while Israel has conflicts with Iran, Lebanon, and Gaza.

The Philippines’ current state of security does not justify this level of response. There’s no logic behind requiring millions of youths to undergo military training just in case. It would essentially be trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. There may have been a time when mandatory ROTC was needed in the country, but that is a bygone era. Now, our national defense and security are in no external threat.

Even if there were foreign threats, these could be handled by already trained and experienced soldiers. Unwillingly attending a program for some months as teenagers because the government said so is nothing compared to skilled professionals. Besides, implementing mandatory military service doesn’t immediately mean a stronger force that could defend the country’s territory if needed; more soldiers doesn’t equate to a more advanced army. In the end, it might just mean even more deaths or casualties that could have been avoided had the government thought twice before sending them to fight.

There are, however, those who argue that this preparation would be a necessary response to the Chinese threat in the West Philippine Sea. President Duterte himself said that mandatory ROTC would help should China become more aggressive.

While this conflict should definitely not be overlooked, this is a maritime dispute — something concerning the navy and not the infantry. In other words, there’s no need for force. So, why should the army be strengthened when it isn’t even needed?

A question of funding

Implementing mandatory military service would also drastically impact the country’s funding and economy. There’s no doubt that it will cost a lot of money that the country does not have, as the government would essentially be paying for millions of people’s subsidies, equipment, and training camps.

There is simply no guarantee that the provided budget would be enough to accommodate millions of trainees. Lack of funding could result in lack of equipment and in turn, ineffective training that only comprises marching under the sun rather than developing actual skills.

If this plan is pursued, more and more money will only be poured into the military. Knowing the government, this would just become another excuse for them to increase the budget of the armed forces. This money is not just some extra funds the country has lying around — it’s at the expense of underfunded departments like those for education and healthcare. It’s ridiculous to see, especially when this treatment towards the military is exactly what these sectors have been begging the people in power for years only to be denied again and again.

In fact, this is not a new problem, no — it’s something that has been our reality for far too long. President Duterte recently signed the 2022 General Appropriations Bill, which allocates a budget of P213.78 billion to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). In comparison, the Department of Health (DOH) was only given P188.3 billion. Even the Philippine National Police (PNP) was given a higher budget than the DOH despite the fact that we are in the middle of a global pandemic; response and recovery should be the government’s priority.

On top of this already large budget, the military also receives donations from other countries. Just recently, the AFP received a donation of over P1 billion worth of equipment from China and P1.38 billion worth of military hardware from the United States last year. This is a substantial amount of money, and the government still wants to give the military more. For what — more aging, defective aircraft?

If the government continues to callously spend taxpayers’ money for the military, the country will only struggle even more to keep itself afloat as it recovers from the pandemic. If this level of response and urgency was only given to departments that actually need it, our situation would have probably improved by now. But no, in this administration’s eyes, the military is more important than the people they swore to put first.

Being 18

Duterte-Carpio and many others also fail to consider that most 18-year-olds are either graduating or have freshly graduated at that point of their lives. This is a pivotal stage as they are now transitioning from adolescence to adulthood. Most people at this age focus mainly on getting into a college and/or finding a career — going out into the world and finally fulfilling their dreams. Then, they’re suddenly expected to just drop their plans and put it on hold in exchange for months of isolation and training they neither expected nor asked for.

It’s unfair to deprive generations of a future they’ve struggled and worked so hard to achieve. Being a student during these times is difficult enough: trying to get through a pandemic, adapting to a completely new form of learning, and just surviving. And now, the government that’s supposed to help them seeks to add to the burden of a gun. All that will be asked of them is to prepare and train for fights that don’t exist: the very conflicts that the people in power ironically create.

While Duterte-Carpio may be right in her statement that 18-year-olds are no longer “children,” it doesn’t justify her proposal. The fact that they aren’t children anymore just means that they are perfectly capable of choosing for themselves and their future.

If this is implemented, the government would only deprive and delay the country of many writers, engineers, doctors, scientists, and artists who wouldn’t be able to pursue their careers and further progress the Philippines. Instead, all of them would be directed to the military, just to sign themselves up for potential abuse, trauma, and harassment.

The problem with ROTC

ROTC has a long history filled with controversy, hazing, and corruption. This is history the government needs to learn from, not repeat.

In March 2001, Mark Welson Chua, a student at the University of Santo Tomas, was found dead, floating in the Pasig River. His body was wrapped in a carpet, his hands and feet tied and his face covered with masking tape.

Chua uncovered corruption and bribery in the program, exposing it in the school’s paper. His death acted as a catalyst for anti-ROTC protests at the time. Afterwards, RA 9163 was passed, making the program voluntary and replacing it with NSTP.

Chua’s killing is a brutal reminder of the abuse and corruption still rampant in ROTC. His story has been retold countless times, and yet, it seems as if the country has conveniently forgotten that despite mandatory ROTC being abolished, this culture of violence and abuse still remains in the program.

Since then, there have been multiple reports of hazing. In 2014, a hazing victim from the Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP) was reported being beaten up by two ROTC cadet officers. A year later, a student in ROTC uniform from the University of Mindanao– Tagum campus was filmed hitting students who are believed to be ROTC recruits as well. There were also reports of sexual abuse at the Benguet State University’s ROTC program.

What’s worse is that this abuse is not isolated in ROTC alone, but in other institutions as well. The Department of National Defense (DND) and the AFP, both infamous for maltreatment, will directly manage ROTC. This is incredibly problematic as it is a sign that this culture of fear and violence pervades the entire system. It has become intrinsic to its identity.

Darwin Dormitorio, a Philippine Military Academy (PMA) cadet, was a hazing victim who died after being beaten up by his fellow cadets. He was punched, kicked, suffocated with a broom, and tasered. There was also Jonash Bondoc, a cadet of the Philippine Merchant Marine Academy (PMMA), who was believed to have died of hazing.

According to Bondoc himself, hazing, among other acts of violence, is normal at the PMMA as it is a way for seniors to strengthen cadets. Former AFP chief Lt. Gen. Noel Clement similarly said that some cadets resort to “other means” to help the cadets “transform.”

These cases of abuse clearly point out that the government should reconsider its plan to make military training mandatory for all the youth. They’ve sworn to help them and yet, they do the exact opposite. How do they expect youths to “love the country” when they’re busy being beaten up and trying to survive? How can they possibly love their home when home is where they suffered?

Countless victims have died, anguished, and endured through the abuse in ROTC, and countless more continue to do so. Government officials themselves admit and acknowledge this, yet they continue to deny these victims the justice they deserve. All these years of protests and reports, all these years of desperate calls — only to fall into the hands of officials who won’t even bother to listen.

Discipline and disaster preparedness

Many argue that implementing mandatory military service would instill a sense of discipline in the youth, prepare them for disasters, and teach them self-defense and first aid as well. But these things can be taught at home or at school without having to serve in the military. The current NSTP already teaches the youth different ways to help the community with its other two programs: Literacy Training Service and Civic Welfare Training Service.

If the government wants to inspire discipline and proactiveness, it could implement other programs and create more job opportunities, not make military training compulsory. Not only would these resorts be much more affordable, but they would also respect the people’s freedom of choice.

Nationalism and patriotism

Finally, Duterte-Carpio claims that implementing mandatory military service would inspire nationalism and patriotism in the youth. However, there’s no reason as to why these things should revolve around militarization. After all, Rizal didn’t need a gun to become our national hero.

There are other alternatives to do so — the main one being education. The administration can better instill nationalism by promoting the country’s culture and language and by improving history subjects. They can also do this by helping the youth become more conscious of their civic duties and by prioritizing peacebuilding education.

Moreover, making military service mandatory doesn’t suddenly inspire nationalism in the youth. All it has proved to foster are countless acts of abuse and violence. Being exposed to corruption and maltreatment doesn’t result in stronger civic engagement, and it definitely will not make someone love their country even more. It only shows the flaws in the system that the administration refuses to resolve; it only shows a country that refuses to fix itself. No kind of nationalism is worth it when the government itself does not bother to improve the country they claim to love.

The government’s faults

These excuses to develop discipline and nationalism in the youth are just those — excuses. Instead of doing what this proposal claims it will, it would only become another tool for corruption and oppression as it already did. When mandatory ROTC was still implemented, the AFP used to install Student Intelligence Networks. ROTC cadets were recruited and tasked to infiltrate and surveil progressive student organizations in activist-hotbeds such as the PUP and the University of the Philippines (UP). They were instructed to monitor school publications, student councils, fraternities, and militant groups.

It is absurd acts like these by the government that make it questionable every time another official comes out and tries to resurrect mandatory ROTC. It’s been repeatedly proven that the people have nothing to gain from this, but these officials do. It begs the question as to what they truly prioritize: the youth or their power? We cannot ensure or even trust that the very people in power wouldn’t abuse this to foster blind obedience and create more lapdogs or “robots” as former PMA superintendent Gen. Rufo de Veyra put it.

It has been two decades since mandatory ROTC was abolished, and yet it seems we have not learned anything. And now, Duterte-Carpio, who may possibly be the next vice president, wants to pursue mandatory military service? History has given us every reason to avoid the past from happening again, but it continues to be brought up by these politicians. It’s frustrating to see our country treat its youth — its so-called “pag-asa ng bayan” — this way. How can we be sure that this would be any different from mandatory ROTC’s horrid past that it clearly cannot get rid of? This is not a solution.

Instead of implementing mandatory military service, it should be left as it is: voluntary. Let it be an option, not the law. The youth should decide how they want to protect and serve the country, may it be through serving in the military or something entirely different. The government needs to learn how to respect its people’s freedom of choice and the decision they will eventually make.

Senseless solutions

The existing program is already plagued with problems such as corruption and violence, yet these still haven’t been given attention. Those who died and suffered still haven’t been given justice. Unless the government fixes this clearly broken program, there’s no reason worthy enough to make it mandatory for all the youth and subject millions of students to its abuse. In the long run, they will only create more cases, reports, cadets being beaten up, and victims whose stories remain untold. This is not a program that should be expanded even more, but rather something that should be fixed and given attention.

Instead of making solutions that clearly create more problems than the government can currently (or will not) handle, prioritize actual issues: education, healthcare, post-pandemic recovery, and poverty. Direct this attention and response on something worthwhile. The people need to see real solutions and real plans from those who will eventually run the country. They need an administration that can prove that it will implement programs that would benefit the country and lead it to progress, not to ruin.

In the end, the people have the power to decide. It has become more important than ever to educate oneself and the people around us. Use your platforms to raise awareness and amplify the voices that remain untold and unheard. You will choose the path the country will ultimately take.

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